Of False Memories and Explosions

Yesterday, I came across this article by Kate Lunau on Motherboard, in which psychologist Julia Shaw explains false memories and how they form. It’s a fascinating article, which also struck a chord with me, because I have a very vivid memory of a traumatic event stuck in my head that happens to be false.

In 1979, a fire broke out at the Rolandmühle, a flour mill here in Bremen, which caused a devastating flour dust explosion that killed 14 people, injured a further 17 and caused a huge amount of damage. Here is an article about the explosion.

I was not quite six years old at the time of the disaster and I have an extremely vivid memory of watching the explosion happen: In my memory, I’m standing on the far side of the Nordstraße. The sun is shining, the wind is tugging at my dress and playing with my still short hair that has only begun to grow out, the daffodils on the dike are blooming and I’m looking over at the mill, when it suddenly explodes. As memories go, this one is absolutely crystal clear, as if it happened only yesterday. My mind can replay it at will. Worse, I sometimes get flashbacks, whenever I happen to be near the Rolandmühle. Once, when I had to drive directly past the flour silos, I got not just a flashback, but a full blown panic attack to and had to stop the car, which is not exactly ideal, because it’s an area where street prostitutes hang out and stopping your car there, even though you’re not a customer will only piss them off.

This memory, which is so absolutely clear and vivid, is also completely false. The explosion really did happen and I knew the Rolandmühle, because I often drove past it with my parents on our way to visit friends of theirs. However, I was nowhere near the mill, when it exploded. Instead, I was about twenty kilometres away, most likely in bed.

Replaying the memory – and remember that I can replay it at will – it’s notable that there are some things about it that are odd. For starters, the memory has no sound – the explosion happens in absolute silence, even though the real explosion was so loud it could heard as far as twenty-five kilometres away. I also don’t turn away or duck or scream, I just stand there calmly and watch it happen like in a movie, which isn’t particularly likely, especially not considering I was only six years old at the time. I can also read the signs on the mill and the other factory buildings in the area, even though I wasn’t in school yet and therefore couldn’t read. Finally, in the memory I’m all alone on a street, where I had no reason to be, since I only knew the area from driving past it.

Nonetheless, I assumed for many years that the memory was real and that we must have driven past the mill, when it exploded. Only that my parents had no memory at all of driving past the exploding Rolandmühle and that’s not something one is likely to forget. So eventually I assumed that I had simply seen a footage of the explosion on TV and mistook it for one of my memories.

However, there is no footage of the explosion, only of the aftermath. So how could I come to have a clear memory of watching footage that doesn’t exist.

Upon closer examination, a lot of the details of my memory are off: The explosion happened at half past nine at night, yet in my memory it is daylight. And in my memory, I clearly remember wearing a dress and seeing the daffodils on the dike, even though the explosion happened on a cold night in February. Plus, photos taken after the explosion show that the part of the mill where I remember seeing it happen is about the only part that remained undamaged.

So how can I so clearly remember an event I neither witnessed nor that ever happened that way? The Motherboard article explains that if you imagine something happening over and over again, it will eventually turn into a false memory. And this is precisely what happened here.

Now the explosion at the Rolandmühle was front page news in Bremen in February of 1979, so even at the age of not quite six, I would have heard about it on the radio and TV news. The event also clearly terrified me, because I knew the mill from driving past it with my parents every weekend and because that sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in places you knew. Buildings exploded in war zones far away, but not where I lived. And flour was not supposed to explode at all (in fact, dust explosions happen on occasion, but most people are completely unaware that flour can cause massive explosions).

So I must have become obsessed with the explosion and imagined it happening over and over again, until it turned into a memory. This also explains the discrepancies. I imagined the scene in daylight, because we’d only driven past the mill by day. I imagined the explosion seen from Nordstraße, because that was the street we always drove along (There are some photos of what the area looks like today here). And of course, I imagined the explosion in the front part of the mill that was actually visible from the street rather than where it really happened. The daffodils really do grow on the dike in front of the mill – you can see a photo here – so I incorporated them in my memory. My hair was really still short in February 1979 and I really had a dress like the one I remember wearing – though I have no idea why I incorporated this particular dress, since it wasn’t a favourite. So I recreated a scenario out of all of this bits of reality, the street, the mill, the daffodils, the dress, the short hair, and somehow managed to implant a false memory in my brain. Coincidentally, this memory feels as real, if not more so, as other memories from the same time, even though I know that it’s false.

When I first heard of false memories, e.g. of people recalling crimes that never happened (and of course, talk of false memories first surfaced in the context of allegedly false sexual abuse allegations supposedly planted by overzealous investigators), I viewed it as just another excuse to dismiss crimes and not believe the victims. Once I realised that I have a vivid false memory myself I became more open to the idea that false memories can and do exist, though that does not mean that sexual abuse and other allegations should be dismissed, but that they should be investigated thoroughly.

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